Kitty Cohen should be easy to spot amid the crowd of long-distance walkers participating in this year’s Weekend to End Women’s Cancers.
She’ll be the one dancing a jig across the finish line.
The 98-year-old has ended each of her last three walks with a dance, kicking up her heels to an imaginary song as spectators cheer her on.
“I just shake a little bit,” she said with a laugh. “Let them know the old gal’s still moving.”
Participants in this year’s walk will cover a 32- or 60-kilometre route over the weekend to raise money for research into gynecological and breast cancers at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital.
Ms. Cohen, a retired legal stenographer who turns 99 this December, is no stranger to long-distance walking. In 1969, she walked 50 kilometres in Oxfam Canada’s Miles for Millions walkathon, raising money for the organization’s work in developing countries.
“All my toenails came off,” she recalled, pausing for effect. “What an experience.”
After watching her daughter, Bernie Riley, complete the walk for the first time in 2007, Ms. Cohen said, “Bernie, sign me up for next year.” The mother-daughter duo have taken to Toronto streets for the walk every year since.
In 2008, they walked 44 kilometres over two days; this year, Ms. Cohen said, she’s aiming for 25 kilometres in a single day.
“She’s become a real iconic figure at the walk,” said Christine Lasky, vice-president of strategic initiatives at the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation. “I always say to people, ‘If a woman in her 99th year can do it, you can do it.’”
But that doesn’t mean the distance is easy for Ms. Cohen: Last year, a backache made the trek particularly gruelling. But instead of calling it quits when the pain worsened, she ducked into a drugstore along the route to buy a heating pad, stuck it on her back, and kept on walking.
So far, Ms. Cohen has raised about $3,000 for this year’s walk by asking friends, neighbours and even strangers to sponsor her.
“Nobody refuses, even if it’s just $2,” she said, adding that much of her training comes from walking to the homes of friends and neighbours to collect donations.
The Shoppers Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers takes place Saturday and Sunday, and starts and finishes in Toronto’s Downsview Park.
The annual event has raised more than $112-million over the past eight years and is run in five cities across Canada.
Ms. Cohen said she plans to be back next year for the Weekend’s tenth anniversary, the year she’ll turn 100.
“People always ask me, ‘What is your secret?’” Ms. Cohen said. “And I just say: ‘Keep walking.’”